Tragedy is in the monotone

Tragedy is in the monotone

Iphigenia in Tauris at the Canadian Opera Company. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. Director Robert Carsen. Full cast & creative plus the complete list of performance dates and ticket options HERE. Seen on September 25, 2011.

There’s no denying that Susan Graham is a fine Iphigenia. It is evident in every phrase sung that she knows the role inside-out yet does not make it routine. There were several moments in the performance where a lesser singer or the one still testing the role would have ended a crescendo phrase with a loud, grand finish, but Graham went for a much more moving piano conclusion. The solo arias were the right amount and style of sad, and although the stage movement was extremely limited in this production which is intentionally stripped down to geometry, Graham kept Iphigenia vivid. (Iphigenia’s movement on stage: 1) double-down belly ache; 2) arms spread wide, look to the sky, 3) carrying of the spear). Russell Braun’s Orestes was a decidedly madder sibling of the two, so we had an intriguing dramatic situation where the male emotes the most.

Robert Carsen’s is the type of production that counts on the singers and the music to provide the palate of colours. If C. W. Gluck is your idea of an exciting composer, you will love this production. I happen to think that Alceste and Iphigénie en Tauride are his most boring operas, running the emotional gamut from A to C. With a production whose visual gamut runs from A to A, it all felt like a concert performance with some really nifty lighting design.

Occasionally, things that strike you as interesting will appear, amuse for a moment, then pass without managing to involve you very deeply. Instead of the usual storm at the opening of the opera, the singers re-enact the tragic events that brought the main characters to that point in the story. The room where the captured Pylades (Joseph Kaiser) and Orestes are held prisoners is nothing but a white rectangle on the dark floor. (Neat.) The Furies assail Orestes, carry him around, and make him walk sideways across the wall across the letters of his mother’s name. (Cool.) The entire chorus is in the pit, and the crowd of dancers (the only set to speak of) is permanently silent. (Ah!) As Iphigenia finds out about the death of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, their names are erased, and Iphigenia erases her own in a slow, mournful orchestral sequence. (Oh.) Just how claustrophobic the temple/psyche where all this is happening is you realize when the walls come up with the final jubilant chorus and the light seeps in. (Breathe.) Two key scenes are immensely enriched by the doubling of the characters with their differently positioned shadows. (Really cool.)

These are all interesting moments that don’t change the overall tone of the production as one-note and somewhat ungenerous. [Again, if the music were richer, none of this would matter.] The costumes are about all the same — the stranded Greek pair are almost visually indistinguishable from Thoas & Comp., and every woman wears the long black gown and the long-haired wig. The only time that monochromaticism is abandoned is when the red light brings to the memory the massacres past.

All this to say that the production is a noble effort, but will leave those who aren’t mad about Gluck unsatisfied. The ceremonious, academic-sounding music with simple notions of grand and tragic and simple intervals that remind of the first-year piano exercises don’t go for the jugular even in the most favourable circumstance, let alone in a bare, intentionally colourless productions. The COC orchestra under Pablo Heras Casado did its utmost and provided colours and depths, give or take a couple of times when the soloist was drowned and the on and off stage tempi at a discord.

With Gluck now out of the way, let’s get this season started.

Top photo: John Currid

Middle and bottom photos: Michael Cooper.

For the fuller photo cutlines, hover your cursor above the photos.

3 thoughts on “Tragedy is in the monotone

  1. Obviously I’m suspending judgement until I see the production (a week Friday) but it’s quite refreshing to see someone NOT gush over it. I love the piece and I’m a squeeing Robert Carsen fanboy so I’m thinking I might see it differently but who knows!

  2. I know! The gushing is almost as loud as for Orfeo. I think Robert Everett-Smith of the Globe was the only critic or blogger who had some tiny reservations about the production. Under such circumstances, one is almost obliged to play the resident grump.

    But you being a Carsenian, I wonder how you’ll find it.

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